Music as Competition

September 16, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Posted in Music education | 4 Comments

How Music is like Football, and Why It Shouldn’t Be

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from popular culture, it’s that music is all about the competition.
It started with Star Search, but that show was way ahead of its time. Not until the 21st century did we really get to the meat of musical competition: American Idol kicked it off, spawning The Sing-Off, Grease — You’re the One That I Want!, The Voice, The X Factor, and now the upcoming Duets, Star Next Door, and VH1’s in-development 60-Minute Superstar. And I’m pretty sure I missed a couple.

And that’s the way it’s supposed to be, right? Unknowns battling note-for-note for their musical lives for the entertainment of the masses? After all, that’s how they did it in ancient Roman times, only now, instead of raging gladiators we get hopeful teenagers, and instead of Caesar giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down we get Steven Tyler’s signature scream.

That’s what music is all about, right?

Unfortunately, this is the message that seems to be reaching young people from the beginning of their musical development. But I don’t blame the music competition shows — that’s a natural capitalistic outgrowth of what has already been established. No, I believe the biggest culprit in the shift from music as cultural and artistic expression to music as competition is the rise of the marching band.

One conductor tells this story of practicing James Barnes’ arrangement of selections from Porgy & Bess with the high school all-state band:
As they were talking through the piece in an early rehearsal, the conductor pointed out that, when they got to the “Summertime” section, they weren’t going to hear the slow, sultry “Summertime” that they were used to hearing, but an upbeat, triple-meter rendition. He was met with blank stares.

“You all know the tune from ‘Summertime,’ right?” he asked.

More blank stares.

So the conductor went to the keyboard and tapped out the melody. No reaction.

He returned to the podium and asked, “How many of you know what Porgy & Bess is?” No hands went up.

He was frightened to ask the next question, but he had to know the answer: “How many of you know who George Gershwin is?”

One hand went up. It was the pianist, and the only Gershwin tune she could name was Rhapsody in Blue.

Bear in mind that these weren’t a bunch of sixth graders just learning to make noise on their instruments. This was an all-state band, a collection of mostly high school juniors and seniors who were supposedly the cream of the crop.

And they didn’t know who George Gershwin was.

How does this happen? What are these students being taught?

I believe that students have been taught a skewed vision of what music is, what its purpose is, and why it’s important.

Most of the people who read this blog are in some way involved in music themselves, so really consider this question before you continue reading: Why did you want to get into music in the first place?

There will be many varied answers, from the mundane (my best friends were in the band) to the over-the-top and probably revisionist (I wanted to create something beautiful). But I bet not one of you wanted to pursue music because you enjoyed competition.

But what awaits student musicians today? Not long after they get the basics under their fingers, they start preparing for contest. And by prepare, I mean spending every rehearsal (five days a week) working up a single concert that they can take to contest in the hopes of outscoring the other schools, who have all been doing the same thing. The purpose of rehearsing and of making music then becomes to get a high score. Forget talking about the history. Forget explaining the nuance. Forget the culture, and the art, and the teamwork. Forget actually learning about music.Focus on the goal: winning.

Avon Black and Gold Marching Band from Avon, I...

Avon Black and Gold Marching Band from Avon, Indiana perform at a Bands of America Grand National Championship in the RCA Dome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It gets worse in high school. Marching band tears down all pretense of art for art’s sake and becomes the musical analogue to football: Practices start in the summer (if not at the end of the preceding school year). Once school begins, after-school practices start going, and the players have to memorize their formations and learn to adjust what they’re doing based on those around them. And then the competitions start. The teams take the field, they do their best, and they get scored. There are trophies. The winning teams celebrate their success, and the rest moan about every little mistake that cost them precious points.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t what music is supposed to be about. This isn’t why Beethoven composed his Third Symphony, or why John Adams wrote The Death of Klinghoffer, or why the musicians kept playing even as the Titanic went down.

I’ll leave the whole conversation about what music is and why it’s important to your own thoughts (and maybe to a later post). What I want to focus on is the real effect that this focus on competition is having on the world of music.

Concert bands and orchestras around the country are having a horrible time. Audiences are staying away in droves, leaving as many empty seats as filled ones. Attempts to get younger audiences — the future of music in the United States — into the auditoriums are failing. As ticket sales fall, groups large and small are having a hard time making financial ends meet and are looking at dangerous ways to save money and cut corners.

Sure, some of the drop-off can be attributed to the economy. People don’t have as much money to spend on tickets. But that isn’t the only problem.

Take us, for example. In the Indiana Wind Symphony, we routinely send letters announcing our concerts to a few dozen band directors in the area. Those announcements are somehow not reaching the students. We’ve even offered masterclasses and blocks of free student tickets, hoping to get a busload of music-loving kids to a concert, but we’ve gotten unbelievably few responses. We’ve even programmed pieces that we knew local schools were working on for their upcoming contests. Nothing.

Band and orchestra teachers, and therefore their students, don’t seem to care about what happens with their musical instruction after high school. They don’t care that there are groups like us, and like the many adult concert bands and chamber groups in central Indiana, just waiting to give them a place to continue their musical journey after high school. Not to compete, but to challenge themselves, to make friends, to enjoy themselves, and to be a part of the musical continuum that stretches back through the centuries.

Instead, students compete. And then they go home and watch other competitions. They listen for the mistakes, the “pitchiness,” the nerves sneaking through that make one singer not as good as another. Then they phone in to vote for their favorite one. And that’s what music is.

I don’t intend this as a wholesale condemnation of high school band and orchestra directors. Of course there are some music teachers doing outstanding jobs of giving students well-rounded musical educations. But it’s unfortunate that they stand out for doing what all music teachers should be doing.

Enhanced by ZemantaPosted by Andy Hollandbeck


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  1. Great article, so true. I am currently volunteering in a different all-volunteer musical organization, and I believe one of the reasons we have trouble getting volunteers is this fear of “not being good enough.”

  2. It was ages ago that I was in marching band in both high school and college and I was in a different part of the country. Things may have changed since then, but at the time, I never heard of a marching band competition, much less participated in one. We were there simply to entertain the audience during breaks in the game activity. So, although marching band may have its drawbacks, it can exist without competition.

    I don’t know the reason that marching bands now have competitions, but my guess is that those involved with school bands wanted at least a fraction of the press that school athletic teams got and realized that one way to get some recognition was to compete with other bands. The competition results would be written up in newspapers, where regular concerts would receive no ink. Or, perhaps, someone thought that the reward of a trophy would last longer and be more tangible than the reward of applause.

    But, no matter the reason it started, making competition the goal of music performance is definitely a step in the wrong direction. Sure, the necessary evil of auditions will always be there, because musical groups want to fill a vacancy with the best available musician. But creating music in an ensemble is a cooperative process, not a competitive one. The musician tries to play in a way that best complements the group, blending in, adding the tonality and styling that works best with what the other ensemble members are doing. If the musicians start competing, the performance becomes a loud, raucous mess.

    And what about the times, such as at a jazz festival or rock concert, where more than one group may be performing? There is no competition between groups.

    If ensembles from various schools are to gather and perform, any judging should be done non-competitively, rating each group individually on the interpretation and musicality of the music performed, aspects which will implicitly depend on how well the individuals played as a group and met the underlying technical aspects of performance, as well as many other factors. Unlike musical competitions, which implicitly encourage individuals from one group to listen for mistakes and imperfections of other groups’ performances, the student performers will more likely listen for the effective aspects of other schools’ performances.

    If there is to be any competition in music performance, it should be an internal competition where the musician attempts to make each performance by himself or the ensemble better than the previous one.

  3. 1. Even “folk” idioms are being turned into competitive endeavors. Examples: Scottish and Irish instrumental music and dancing. I think it goes in a progression something like this: A folk music arises from “the people.” It becomes disseminated and popular, competitions are established (funds become available for prizes). Standardization and orthodoxy emerge based on competition judges’ preferences. The folks idiom is destroyed. It is no longer folk!

    2. The power of competition as a motivator and incentive is not limited to music, or the arts in general. We’re finding more competitions in the schools in science, robotics, engineering, poetry, economics, and even comedy! In my opinion, this leads to standardization, which impedes true progress in human endeavors. Instead of acting as a catalyst to innovation, it teaches avoidance of error. Keep it safe.

    A certain church choir director told me one time that when he asked some high school students to sing in the choir for the holidays, they said that they were not interested. There was no trophy involved.

    3. Even in the mainstream curriculum, competition is a big motivator. Despite the politicians’ “promise” a number of years ago that ISTEP scores were to be used to identify students in need of remediation, they are now splashed on the front page of the Sunday Star. The public can easily compare “performance” of the various schools and school districts. That’s competition. It’s a motivator.

    4. Drum Corps International emerged from the old CYO and American Legion corps. Participants wanted more artistic freedom than afforded by those organizations. I’ve got some “old” recordings from the early 1980s; there was a certain aesthetic quality to the music: emphasis on melody, drama, and color. Now the goal seems to be to play as many notes as possible per minute. Melody, interesting harmonies, and contrast has largely been abandoned and it’s become a crass “show-off” enterprise. Anything for a trophy.

    I agree in total with Andy’s comments. Why can’t people just enjoy participation in the arts? Judging should be non-competitive, with the goal of providing useful professional feedback to help the musician improve his/her performance. What happened to music as an aesthetic experience. Well, we’ve pretty well sucked the beauty out of it. I rarely hear the word “beauty” used any more.

    Remember the MGM lion: Ars gratia artis! Art for art’s sake.

  4. I remember my drive to achieve more mastery of my instrument was to move up the ladder in my ’50’s Pittsburgh Public Schools system of All-City Orchestra trumpet section. The reward was to play exceptional music with exceptional players and conductors. We had none of the competition between schools that the suburban bands, drum&bugle corps, etc had; and we didn’t miss it.

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